- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jason Thompson
alk to any Stephen King fan, and they’ll usually tell you that the films based on his bestselling novels are a hit and miss affair. Some, like “Misery,” have been met with critical and fan praise, while others like “The Shining” have split people down the middle due to the movie’s “based on the novel by” elements. And then you have things like “Stand By Me” that will forever find great favor in film fanatics everywhere. As someone who has never really gotten into Stephen King very deeply beyond stuff like “Maximum Overdrive” (which is utter crap but hilariously bad in a good way), “Stand By Me,” and the original “Creepshow,” which King had a hand in co-writing and creating and is by my estimation still a fun flick, it was with entirely fresh eyes that I viewed this new DVD edition of “Cujo.” Yep, I had never seen it before now.
So to get to what the fans already know: this movie is a slow-burner. Sure, we get to see the originally sane and friendly Cujo chasing a rabbit down its hole only to find that hole housing a few bats, one of which is rabid and snacks on poor Cujo’s nose, transferring its deadly disease. But the first chunk of the film is given over to the tension created by Donna Trenton’s (Dee Wallace) affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone) and how it is affecting both her marriage with husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and son Tad (Danny Pintauro). Adding to the family tension is Vic’s publicity campaign gone sour for a favorite cereal, when an outbreak of food poisoning caused by the cereal’s dye or some such matter occurs. Tad is soon letting all this stress get to him and he’s soon freaking out about monsters in his bedroom. Donna comes across as the aloof parent while Vic is always there for Tad, comforting in his times of need.
Of course, shit has to go farther downhill than this, or else we’d be watching a Lifetime movie. As luck would have it, Vic and Donna’s cars are two separate hunks of junk. Vic drives a red Jaguar with problems and Donna is tooling around in a crapped-out Pinto. A local mailman instructs Vic to go to some hayseed on the outskirts of town named Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), who fixes cars for a much cheaper price than the local grease monkey. So the Trentons head out to the Cambers, and wouldn’t you know it, Cujo is the family pet. Vic’s car gets fixed up really nicely and everything is peachy keen until it’s finally revealed that Donna has been sleeping around with Steve, a family friend no less, but one who apparently has a bit of a screw loose when it comes to letting go of Donna.
To make a long story short, Vic is understandably hurt and leaves Donna and Tad for a few days to try and fix his bungled cereal ad campaign. Donna and Tad are left to go back up to the Cambers to have her hunk of junk fixed. In the meantime, Cujo has finally started his killing spree, taking out Joe and a buddy of his. Once Donna makes it to the Cambers herself, the car has died and Cujo does his damndest to terrorize and kill both she and Tad. Like I said, it’s a real slow burner to get to this point, but thankfully it works. Though the first act of the tale can get a bit on the soap opera side of the fence, the tension in the Trenton family needs to be worked up to co-exist with the actual terror that Donna and Tad soon face when locked up in the Pinto just trying to wait it out until someone comes and finds them.
“Cujo” is one of those R-rated flicks that today could possibly get by as a PG-13. The gore really isn’t much to shy away from, and the fear is more psychological than physical for the majority of the film. Although, truth be told, the scene where Dee Wallace first gets the nerve to get out of the car to try to sneak her way over to the Camber’s house (and is attacked by Cujo) is a seriously intense moment. One can’t help but feel both horror for Donna and compassion for Tad who is now trapped in the back seat, screaming his head off in terror, while his mother is fighting for her life while being mauled by a rabid dog. Suffice it to say that Lewis Teague knew what the hell he was doing when directing this picture.
Though the film does suffer from that stylized soft focus look that many films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s embraced, “Cujo” is definitely a Stephen King adaptation that doesn’t suck. The pacing is well-balanced, the tension is palpable, and the fears are based on things all too frighteningly real. This isn’t some madcap escapade into the supernatural. Cujo looks like one mean, disgusting sumbitch when he finally snaps and starts chowing down on anyone who gets in his way. Although special recognition must be given to Daniel Hugh-Kelly’s slight resemblance to David Hasselhoff in the hair department: Those tight curls would have done the Hoff proud!
25th Anniversary Edition DVD Review:
Apparently the old DVD edition of “Cujo” really sucked. From what I gathered, fans hated the cover artwork, and the film print itself was chopped and wasn’t the best in transfer quality. So those fans will be pleased that this new edition of the film is presented in a much more harrowing style of packaging, with new box art and -- most importantly -- a pristine transfer of the film. Among the special features are an informative commentary by director Lewis Teague, as well as an entertaining multi-part featurette on the making of the film where we learn Stephen King had originally strayed too far from his original novel when reworking it for the big screen. Director Teague instead went back to the book and made only minor changes. Suffice it to say that fans of “Cujo” are finally getting a DVD release of the film that should please them completely. And for the rest of the folks, like me, who had never seen this film, do yourselves a favor and give it at least a rental as it is a pretty damn good flick.